The right to time

We need to think about freedom in terms of a right to the leisure time that right now only the rich enjoy. By Jorge Moruno

April 9, 2019 · 4 min read
tesKing / Flickr

We’re not just living in times of economic and political crisis, we’re also witnessing a crisis in the way we experience time. Time is undoubtedly connected to power; nowhere more so than in the dispute about who has the right to decide what to do with their time and who doesn’t. The split between those who have time and those who don’t is the split between those who know and those who ignore, between those who command and those who obey. The ordering of time defines the border between those who appear and those who observe, between visibility and invisibility, between those who manage to be felt by society and those who don’t.  In sum: the distribution of time defines who is free and who isn’t.

From urbanism and infrastructures to issues such as access to housing, regional imbalances, and caregiving tasks, there is always a temporal hierarchy in the distribution of the roles, locations, and settings of a given social order. Those with less time are also those who are less free. In our modern society, the time we value the less is always that of those who work in cleaning, caregiving, and collecting tasks. This tends to be mostly –although not exclusively- the time of women, migrants, and the young. The proletarian archipelago thus consists of those who’ve been deprived of their own time in a society that forces the majority to sell their time in exchange for money.

Regardless of one’s opinion on whether we’re currently witnessing the end of work –and thus the end of capitalism- or not, what is undoubtedly ending is the era in which work always took the form of employment. Instead, we seem to be going back to a work mode closer to the 19th C one: intermittent and insecure. All our lives appear to have now been subsumed by the domain of work and money, and as a result access to the means of subsistence is achieved exclusively through the means of employment. Today’s social dependency on work is thus much more intensive and extensive, while at the same time said work is insufficient to reproduce life.

In this context, when the workforce sees its margin of decision over its own time minimised and is forced to make all its life time available for work, work by itself cannot guarantee a minimum of security and aggravates the lack of freedom. Capitalism produces superfluous populations because it enables both the abundance of life means and the scarcity of modes of employment. This in turn reveals how the key dynamics of capitalism are not about satisfying needs, but about multiplying money.

Thinking about freedom in terms of equality in the right to secure time allows us to concretise the debate around unconditional basic income through a democratic perspective. The guarantee to unconditional universal services can thus act as a way of bringing together security, freedom, and equality, by promoting a society in which a guaranteed time of dignity would give us the right to reject jobs, instead of always having to accept them regardless of how precarious they are.

Adam Smith believed that ‘wherever capital predominates, industry prevails; wherever revenue, idleness’. In other words, that when a society has the necessary guarantees it feels less forced to sell its time cheaply to a third party for a salary, which enables the possibility of spending time on other activities that satisfy needs but which which cannot be measured in terms of good-producing work.  A comprehensive policy about time is therefore not just a set of measures to palliate inequality, it is above all a way of defining the contours of a new civilizational model in which wealth isn’t just about a huge accumulation of goods.

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